Nation’s top school custodian is pride of Forsyth community

Credit: Phil Skinner for the AJC

Credit: Phil Skinner for the AJC

With schools preparing to reopen, students at Forsyth County’s Kelly Mill Elementary School know their campus will be in shipshape condition.

Their head custodian, Richard “Rich” Toomey, is the nation’s best at what he does.

Earlier this year, Toomey was named the 2023 school custodian of the year in a nationwide contest sponsored by Cintas, a global janitorial company out of Ohio.

Cintas first selected Toomey as a top-10 candidate based on his nominations. Then the Kelly Mill community showed its support by flooding the online voting process with tens of thousands of votes. The final tally was 200,000 votes for the custodian from Cumming.

“We really pushed voting, and the community rallied,” Assistant Principal Brittney Shadburn said. “They would drive through car lines, honking their horns, saying they are voting for Rich.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Bradley Robertson, the school’s educational technology coach, kept the contest before staff, students and parents with social media posts and jingle contests.

For weeks during the spring, students created cheers and wrote chants for videos that were posted online. Photos of Toomey’s face, blown-up poster-sized fatheads, were hung around the school. People in the community even stopped him in the grocery store and offered encouragement.

“It’s just amazing the outpouring of support,” said Toomey. “I go to the stores now, and people come up to me and say: ‘I voted for you.’ It’s amazing what this community has done.”

Cintas has hosted the annual contest for the past 10 years to show the importance of custodians.

With a nationwide concern over sanitized classrooms and safe campuses, school maintenance has never been more vital. During the pandemic, custodians had to find new ways to sanitize so that on-campus learning could continue.

“They were the real heroes for sure,” Shadburn said.

Toomey and his staff of five custodians heightened sanitation practices with additional cleanings that are now the norm. Classrooms are routinely fogged with sanitizer during the school day when everyone is out of the room and again when everyone has gone home.

The custodial staff also secures the campus, and Toomey trains his team to take safety seriously.

“It’s very important to him that his staff builds a vibe around the building so everyone feels safe,” Shadburn said. “Our teachers feel safe leaving personal items out, and that’s just as important as the cleanliness of the building.”

Cintas marketing manager Christiny Betsch said the annual contest unearths “tremendous stories of custodians going above and beyond,” and this year was no different.

“Custodians take on a lot of responsibility to help provide a clean and healthy space for students,” Betsch said.

Toomey, who is originally from Long Island, New York, is in his eighth year at Kelly Mill and his fourth as head custodian. School administrators could see his leadership potential when he applied for the management position. Shadburn said district leadership training helped him become more effective.

Toomey credits his staff. “I definitely could not do it without them,” he said. “They are some of the most hard-working people I’ve ever been around. And we have fun, too. It’s a great environment, and they are great people.”

Kelly Mill had not participated in the Cintas contest before. A school district maintenance director urged them to take a look and consider nominating Toomey for the honor.

Step one required nomination letters, and Toomey received more than 90 heartfelt recommendations from current staff, prior staff, parents and others in the community.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

After Toomey became one of the contest leaders, school leadership surprised him with the news during a student assembly and gave him the nomination letters bound in a book.

Cintas officials announced Toomey as the winner at a similar school assembly in the presence of his wife, school district administrators, and school board members. Kelly Mill’s gym was packed with kids – including Toomey’s second-grade son, also named Rich – chanting his name and waving Fathead signs of his image.

“I was shaking,” Toomey said. “It’s a feeling I’ll never forget. I don’t even know how to describe it. It felt like the building was shaking.”

Cintas officials presented him with a $10,000 check, and he will also receive a trip for two to Las Vegas in November to the ISSA Show North America, the leading trade association for the cleaning industry worldwide.

“He’s so humble that all of this has been overwhelming to him and a little bit embarrassing,” Shadburn said.

“Being around the kids and building a rapport is the heart of who he is,” she added.

As school starts again, Toomey has the same priorities he had during the pandemic when his staff worked fervently to perfect new cleaning routines.

“The worst thing was seeing the building empty,” he said. “It was such a gut-wrenching feeling not having the kids here, and we were willing to do anything possible to get everybody back in here safe.”

Then and now, the goal remains: “What can we do to ensure that when they come here, they’re going to stay healthy and safe.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner


In addition to the $10,000 cash prize, Rich Toomey will receive $5,000 in Cintas and Rubbermaid products and services for Kelly Mill Elementary. The school will also receive a facility assessment and consulting package from ISSA, the worldwide industry cleaning association, a $30,000 value.